Old Orchard Beach sheds bad image

Posted: Sunday, June 22, 2003

OLD ORCHARD BEACH, Maine For decades, this beach town has been known for honky-tonks and earsplitting Harleys. Now, officials want to put a lid on excessive noise and freewheeling drinking to make way for a family-friendly tourist town.

Critics complain that a bunch of do-gooders are trying to turn Old Orchard into something it isn't. In recent years, the town has put the kibosh on cruising, dirty T-shirts, sidewalk display racks and loud concerts.

''Next thing you know, you won't be able to smoke down here,'' said Ron Hill, who doesn't even smoke, as he stood outside a food stand near the town's seven-mile beach. ''They're taking away your rights little by little.''

May is the month when Old Orchard's storefronts, food stands, arcades and carnival rides that have lain dormant all winter come to life for the first onslaught of tourists.

This May also will be remembered for the Town Council's decision to ban loud motorcycles and place a moratorium on new bars.

The noise ordinance not only prohibits motorcycles with altered mufflers but also makes it illegal for riders to rev their engines. The six-month moratorium on new bars is designed to give the town time to review its regulations regarding drinking establishments.

Town Council Chair Jim Long said residents want change, as evidenced by last fall's election.

''Clearly the fact that the voters voted out three incumbents who were more in tune to keeping Old Orchard Beach a party town and replaced them with three individuals who said we have to be more civil makes a big statement,'' Long said.

It's not as if Old Orchard hasn't gone through change before.

In the late 1800s, this was a highfalutin summer hangout for the rich. That all changed in 1907, when a fire wiped out most of the town and destroyed 17 large hotels. When the town began rebuilding, car and motorcycle races took place on the beach, amusement rides went up and the foundation of the modern-day Old Orchard was established.

Over time, it became a vacation haven for blue-collar tourists, many from Canada. Bars and B-grade motels proliferated.

Since the late '70s, when public drinking was banned, the town has slowly made changes to upgrade its image. In the late 1980s, it installed tasteful brick sidewalks and Victorian-style streetlights on the main drag. Then came an ordinance prohibiting cars from cruising congested downtown streets.

But even with all that, it's been hard for the town to shed its lowbrow image.

After all, this is the place where a former town manager was quoted in a newspaper as calling the town ''all spit and no polish.'' Stores sell T-shirts three for $9.99 ones that say things like, ''I'm not drunk. I'm chemically imbalanced.''

Businesses such as Hank's Franks, Mad Hatter Tattoo, and Toe Rings and Things don't exactly conjure up images of Ralph Lauren.

And there's greasy food, lots of it fried clam strips, fried dough, and fries with cheese and gravy, a Canadian favorite.

The town's famous pier once jutted 1,800 feet into the ocean and had a swanky dance club at the end where bands led by Guy Lombardo, Rudy Vallee and Duke Ellington played. The pier is now just 396 feet, a victim of storms over the past 105 years, and is filled with souvenir shops and ordinary eateries.

All that aside, Jim Harmon, executive director of the local chamber of commerce, insists that Old Orchard is a town on the rise.

Harmon said the town is becoming a bedroom community for Portland and Portsmouth, N.H., with increasing real estate values, upscale restaurants and family dining spots that are open year-round, not just the summer months.

He said the town is attracting more families, the kind with bicycles and kayaks on top of their cars looking to do more than lie on a beach during the day and drink at night.

''Communities change, communities grow, and hopefully they move forward. That's where I see Old Orchard Beach going,'' he said.

But banning loud motorcycles? Wayne Dube, who rides a 1961 Harley with a ''Bar Hog'' vanity plate, said the town's weekly fireworks show and the train whistle on the new Amtrak train are equally noisy.

Dube and his wife, who own the American Motorcycle shop, say it seems like some people want to turn Old Orchard into Kennebunkport, the well-heeled tourist retreat to the south. ''It isn't going to happen,'' Robin Dube said.

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